Saturday, December 15, 2018

Righteous AND humble?

[This is the journal entry for my quiet time with God this morning. In my quiet time, I follow a format of stop, look, listen, respond. You can see more about this approach to being with God here.]

[UPDATE: Over on Twitter, @pudicat11 (Steve Martin) raises an interesting point on this post. Here's what he said: "Nice job, Mark. 

"But I certainly would never want to rely upon the genuineness (is that a word??) of ‘my repentance’.

"I know myself all too well. What I do, won’t do, and the awful thoughts I often have.

"I’m trusting in His working repentance in me. And in His forgiveness."

Great point! This post could create the wrong impression and a "new law" for salvation. But no law can save. So, here's what I wrote in response to Steve's important caution:

"Well put. I suppose what I mean by that phrase is one's intentions. Even our intentions are never pure, of course. But it's as with the Apostle's Creed: I feel sometimes that I should say, "I want to believe..." God takes that turning, I think, and turns it into faith we can't muster or manufacture, only receive."

I added: "What I meant by authentic repentance was the place of brokenness to which God takes us, inciting us to turn to [Him] in powerlessness rather than in the manner of a transaction. Think: Saul's 'repentance' versus David's; or, Peter's 'repentance' versus that of Judas."]

Look: “Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:3)

I’m preaching on Zephaniah tomorrow and ordinarily, I would avoid focusing during quiet time on a book from which I’m preaching, to avoid being utilitarian. Quiet time is meant to be a time when I commune with God, not a time for studying a book in pursuit of professional ends. But I missed reading Zephaniah earlier in the year when its three chapters were assigned. Because Zephaniah is one of what’s called “the minor prophets” (and sometimes, “ twelve”) in the Old Testament, with whom I’ve been spending a lot of time in my teaching and preaching this Advent season, I decided to read Zephaniah’s three chapters. I also decided to ask God to show me a truth He wanted me to notice today in a verse outside of the lesson appointed for tomorrow, something that He wanted me to see in my quiet time with Him.

He did.

The first thing that struck me about the words of Zephaniah 2:3 are their similarity words of repentance seen in the books of the other minor prophets.

When Jonah reluctantly proclaimed God’s Word to the people of Nineveh, the Ninevite king called his people, who had been foreign to ancient Israel’s God: “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence,” the king said. “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." (Jonah 3:8-9)

And in Amos 5:15, the prophet, speaking for God, tells the people of Israel, facing judgment: “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”

In each of these passages, the theme is the same: God calls people to repent for our sins with authenticity, with a true turning back to God. Whether that will spare the repentant from facing the consequences of sin is completely up to God.

To repent then is to value a restored relationship with God so totally that we’re willing to face the wrath we’ve incurred for our sin. We respect God’s sovereignty.

We know that if we must face earthly punishments for our sins, it’s only because God is a loving Father and He truly regards us His children (Hebrews 12:5-7).

We know too that in the resurrection, repentant believers will live perfectly in the “image of God” which God originally intended for all human beings (Revelation 21:1-27).

So, momentary difficulties aren’t to compared to all that God has in mind for us (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17)

This precludes any utilitarian approaches to repentance on our parts. There’s no, “I’ll repent for my sins if God will…” element in true repentance.

The classic example of authentic repentance is King David. David authentically repented for his adultery and murder. But he accepted that there were still consequences to himself, his family, his reign, and his nation that resulted from his sins. (Sometimes there are no discernible consequences. That too must be left in the hands of the sovereign God.)

The believer who is authentically repentant leaves it all to God.

The second thing that struck me about Zephaniah 2:3 today is its call to “seek righteousness, seek humility.” Righteousness and humility are presented poetically in parallel. According to this verse then, to be righteous is to be humble and vice versa.

This doesn’t really comply with the way we ordinarily understand the word righteousness, or words like it: goodness, moral, upright, or even faultless. When we imagine someone who’s righteous, we imagine them being anything but humble.

We’re more likely to see them as arrogant, judgmental. We picture self-righteous prigs (
a good word from the UK) who look down their noses at the riff-raff of the world who don’t measure up to their high moral standards.

To hear Jesus tell it, people like this are also hypocrites, people whose repentance and faith in God are inauthentic and therefore worthless for them when they come into God’s presence: I think of Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

When God makes a person righteous--I could as easily say, “When God justifies repentant sinners,” because in the Greek in which the New Testament is written, righteousness is dikaiosune and justify is dikaioo, meaning that when God justifies a sinner, He ‘righteousfies’ us, declaring us innocent of sin despite our sin because all who repent in the name of Jesus are covered by Christ’s righteousness--it doesn’t make that person arrogant. In fact, the opposite is true: We are humbled. (I am humbled!)

Arrogance is precluded for the repentant sinner who has been forgiven and made new--made righteous--by God’s action in Christ: His sacrificial death and resurrection. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of [good] works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from [good] works of the law.” (Romans 3:27-28 ESV)

Humility and righteousness go together in authentic repentance because we know that only God can make us righteous: right with God, humble before God, humble in our dealings with others, grateful for undeserved grace, open to God and to others.

Listen: Genuine repentance precludes arrogance in dealing with others, even with those who are themselves arrogant.

As a believer, a disciple, a human being, a citizen, a family member, a servant leader, a pastor, and a dean, I am called to make judgments about people and circumstances. But I am not to be judgmental. I may judge that something a person is doing is wrong. I may, out of love, confront them for it. But I am not to judge their eternal salvation in the bargain.

I’m to keep sharing God’s Word of truth, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), Law and Gospel, because God’s Law shuts our mouths and excludes our excuses and rationalizations for sin (Romans 3:19) and because the Gospel of Jesus Christ sets sinners free from eternal punishment for their sins (Romans 1:15-16), making us righteous (Romans 5:1, CEB).

I must trust that as I trust in God, entrusting my sins and my life to Him in daily repentance and enduring faith, He will keep imparting Christ’s righteousness to me. Like an alcoholic, I am called to daily surrender to God so that He can replace my sinfulness and arrogance with Christ’s righteousness and humility, my dead ways with His life.

Repentance is essential. I must honestly wrestle with my sins and submit them (and myself) to daily crucifixion. If there is to be a new Mark, it will not be built on my working at being righteous or humble. It will only come through this constant--and often painful because crucifixion is painful--regular submission to the God revealed in Jesus.

How will I know that I’ve become a humble, righteous person? I won’t. If I suspect that I’ve become that kind of person, it will be Exhibit A in evidence against my having become a righteous, humble person.

Does that mean I’m a hopeless case? As long as we keep turning to Jesus, laying my life before Him, I’m filled with hope: He shares His righteousness and humility with me, covering me with them.

I needn’t worry about taking on the project of becoming righteous and humble: As I daily turn to Christ, He’s doing the job (and a huge job it is) for me. I simply have to receive Him as I meet Him in His Word, in congregational worship, in the sacraments, in the fellowship of believers.

Respond: Today, Jesus, I turn to You. Forgive the sins of which I’m aware. Make me aware of the ones I don’t know about so that I can submit them to You. Make me fearless in pursuing the calls You have placed on my life: husband, father, friend, pastor, dean, communicator of Your truth. And, as I turn to You with an unveiled face, transform me, whatever pain is involved, into Your mage (2 Corinthians 3:18). Even when I resist You, fill me with Your righteousness and humility so that people don’t see me, but see You in me. In Your name I pray. Amen

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